Tea, Crumpets and Zombies
This article will seek to provide a brief history and background of the British zombie genre and how it has, if at all, affected not only the zombie genre but also horror scene.
The beginnings of the end
In 1932, ‘White Zombie‘ was unleashed upon American audiences and is widely considered as the first zombie movie. A year later the UK produced ‘The Ghoul‘, starring horror icon Boris Karloff, but this is more a mummy than a zombie story. Not all living dead are the same after all and it would be another 25 years, in 1958 with Womaneater that another living dead variation would be released and even then it wasn’t worth the wait as this film didnt even feature the voodoo zombies of films such as ‘White Zombie‘ or ‘I Walked with a Zombie‘ (1943). It wouldn’t be until the mid-sixties till us Brits got our act together.
In 1966, the legendary Hammer Horror studio decided to release their first and only zombie feature-length with ‘The Plague of the Zombies‘. Maintaining the same visual style as many other period Hammer horrors, it is perhaps the last of an era (excluding ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’) as it focussed on voodoo and slave labour rather than the flesh eating ghouls which would devour the genre thanks to George Romero’s game-changing 1968 film ‘Night of the Living Dead’.
Set in a small Cornish village, ‘The Plague of the Zombies‘ represent the undertroden lower classes, being explioted by those in power, which I admit is pretty generic when dealing with voodoo-zombie movies, but is still satisfying in this film and of course we have the iconic image of the zombie stood menacingly on top of the mill.
The same year would also yield another release in the form of The Frozen Dead, featuring an insane scientist (it’s always the crazy ones isint it) who keeps the heads of Nazi war criminals alive until he is able to transplant them onto new bodies and re-form the Third Reich. Sadly I have not been able to check this film out yet, so cannot comment on it’s relevance today.
The 1970s witnessed what some would call the birth of the euro-horror movement, which included great zombie films such as Jorge Grau’s ‘The Living Dead of the Manchester Morgue’ a film that deserves a special mention on this page as it was filmed up north and in the Lake District and really is mandatory viewing for all zombie fans, as it combines social commentry, fantastic characters and zombies.
Representing the potential threat that industrialisation (and man-made pesticides) could have on society, this foreign effort showcases and raises the questions about what are the long term effects on traditional society and our environment.
A secondary area of interest is that of the relationship between every-man George and the bigoted, intolerant inspector which some could argue is representative of the changes of the time. All this is set to a fantastic, creepy atmosphere and some real stomach churning gore. Just a shame it’s not British.
Sadly riding the coat-tails of this joint Italian/Spanish production was as good as it got for British zombie fans, as the highlights of the decade included a voodoo segment in the anthology ‘Asylum‘ (1972), also a segement in that years EC Comics inspired ‘Tales from the Crypt‘, starring the legendary Peter Cushing, which I am ashamed to say I am still yet to check out (I know, what am I doing writing this article right?) and ‘Psychomania’ (1973), where a biker gang sell their souls to the devil for eternal life but with a twist, as they are doomed to ride the roads as the living dead.
As home cinema became more prevalent in the UK, so did the profliferation of straight to video movies as every man and his dog tried his hand at making a horror but not many Brits tried their hand successfully at zombie films with barely any worthy of recognition including ‘Frightmare‘ (1983), not to be confused with the 1973 classic.
Thankfully the 90s marked an upward trend in the zombie production factory, although this is all relative as only the only films worthy of mention come at the later end of the decade with ‘Zombie Toxin‘ (1998) – which can be watched here – and ‘Nightmare of the Living Dead‘ (1998) which is the expected standard low-rent zombie flick but helps showcase how far both the genre and low-cost technology has come in just over a decade.
The Brits invade Hollywood.
True to their nature, you can’t keep a good zombie down and the early-mid 2000’s saw somewhat of a world-wide zombie revival (and first genuine period of British success) led in part by the worldwide success of the game adaptation ‘Resident Evil‘ which went on to gross over $100 million, showing that these films were ripe for the picking.
Stepping out of the shadows of the small time and no-budget flicks, saw two low-budget unassuming films take not just the genre but the mainstream by storm. In 2003, the Danny Boyle directed ‘28 Days Later‘, proved influential in tweaking the genre, as Boyle re-introduced sprinting infected, much like those seen in Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Nightmare City‘ and showed Hollywood big-wigs that the general public wanted fast, frantic action.
Starting off with a scene reminiscent of ‘the Walking Dead‘ graphic novel intorduction, the film opens up with Jim, a London bicycle courier, who had been in a car accident waking up from a coma 28 days later. Walking around an eerie, deserted London before encountering the “infected”. Meeting Selena and a few other survivors our group attempt to leave London and preserve some form of dignitiy and civilisation together, but all that becomes tested when they run into a small group of soldiers who had fortifieid a large mansion.
Although not strictly zombies, the general movie going public didn’t care and the film went on to gross over $82 million from box-office tickets alone, more than ten times its budget providing a very healthy 1000% return.
Have you got any plans, Jim? Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless. Staying alive’s as good as it gets. Selena to Jim. 28 Days Later.
But, arguably, the best was yet to come and the comedic genious of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg would wow us all with the even more British ‘Shaun of the Dead‘ which mixed Romero zombies with Spaced sensibilities and delivered something uniquely humerous and the worlds first rom-zom-com. Following loser Shaun, whose girlfriend leaves him, has a step-dad he can’t stand and whose life is generally a monotonous mess, the zombie apocalypse couldn’t have come at a better time.
Although it only pulled in a relatively small $30 million worldwide at the cinema, from a modest $4 million budget it was a minor financial success but had far reaching cultural significance and influence.
Arguably this was down to perfectly capturing the mood of the ‘Spaced‘ generation, blending stereotypical (and funny) traditional British humour with a fantastic knowledge of Romero and zombie films in general which struck a chord both sides of the Atlantic and not to mention spawned a million zom-com’s, often with romantic story arcs. It’s influence would be felt on hundreds of inferior and low-rent american straight-to-video efforts, ultimately ruining all of the goodwill for zombie comedies developed by the film and, ironically, arguably destroying the genre by setting a template many could follow but few could replicate.
In the period of 2002-2005, the best two relative performers were British movies, providing a significantly higher return on investment, with this gap potentially even higher once marketing costs have been included, not to mention quality wise it could be argued that these two films are among the top three of that list. Of course, lets not forget that zombie classic from 2005… no not the cut theatrical version of Land of the Dead but Burton’s ‘The Corpse Bride‘ with mass appeal it really was the cherry on the cake, as it showed that zombies finally had made it into the mainstream.
However it wasn’t all good news from this, on the back of the success and the re-explosion in zombie cinema, many duds got financed or pushed that should have been best left on the shelves. In particular, ‘Zombie Diaries’ (2006) which was launched with a marketing campaign co-financed by Tesco or Asda, and like a sucker I ended up going for it, on the basis that if a large company like them are confident enough to help put some money towards it then it must be alright, or at very least have some money spent on it.
I was wrong, and hold it up not only as a case of bad zombie cinema (the idea works, see ‘Diary of the Dead‘) where actors changed accents and the film as a whole just stank, but also as a case of hype and promotion over talent.
But like the sturdy nation that we are, we the industry picked itself up from that celluloid crime and building on the success by the two Hollywood intruders, and with no small innovation came the fantastic and highly original ‘Colin‘, written and directed with great aplomb by Marc Price. Billed as a £45 movie, which I think is a bit misleading as they didnt have equipment costs, staff costs etc., nevertheless it shows what a little ingenuity and talent can do in place of a budget, perhaps thats something the producers of ‘World War Z ‘could have learnt from.
Since then we have produced and exported gems such as’ Cockneys vs Zombies’, ‘Gangsters, Guns and Zombies‘ (noticing a theme there?), the socially relevant and understated ‘Harold’s going stiff‘ (fantastic title almost in a Carry on… double entendre still), the marital commentry of ‘Beyond Dawn‘ and not to mention the period drama starring Ian ‘ Gandalf’ McKellen in ‘E’Gad Zombies‘. Remaining unique, quaint and with our traditional humour, the future of British zombie movies and shorts has never looked brighter, especially when combined with the amount of coverage afforded by fantastic national zombie film festivals such as the UK Festival of Zombie Culture, as run by Zombie Ed at Terror4Fun which has given me the privalege to see such varied UK films as many of those mentioned and more, as well as a plethora of UK produced short films.
With the support of these festivals and an ever growing feverant horde of fans willing to devour anything zombie releated, I think the sub-genre still has a lot to show us, and we can be proud of our own area of the market and long may it continue.
One thing writing this has taught me, and which shocked me, was how poor our heritage with zombie films actually was, all the way up to the 2000’s. Thankfully, as the number of available films increased so did the quality, into something that I think can rival any other nation for originality, quality, humour and when required good old fashioned guts and gore.
Sadly, with the exception of ‘Shaun of the Dead‘ our influence on wider zombie culture outside of these fair Isle’s is somewhat limited, but it genuinely is a case of their loss with some of the fantastic and thought provoking films, and one’s which are just bloody good fun, but the dedicated will at least seek them out, as we do with foreign (especially non-American films like ‘Evil:To Kako‘ and ‘Mangue Negro‘) flicks and the reward will be there for them.
We also must not forget the small guys, with films such as Wasteland, the Escatriliogy and more seeking to add to our legacy and it is these directors, writers and producers (not to forget the fans) who are the lifeblood of this sub-genre.
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